Us, but Better

I started to writing this as a reply to a comment on Dr. Dan Ariely’s blog:

Adults also have trouble taking remote consequences into account (take Dr. Ariely’s favorite example: texting while driving), although kids are probably worse at it. That being the case, introducing Tal’s son to someone who is experiencing the long term negative consequences of not following the treatment might not be that helpful. It’s just another way of saying “this is what will happen to you far into the future“. You’re asking the child to make a rational calculation: do I follow my mildly unpleasant treatment now, or suffer severe consequences later? According to the principles of irrational behavior, a more effective approach might involve artificially creating immediate consequences. Such consequences may involve some kind of reward. In that case, we’d call it reward substitution, a technique that Dr. Ariely has described on numerous occasions e.g.

I like the notion that creating some kind of habit might also be a good idea. This relates to another concept in Dr. Ariely’s writings: anchoring. Once we decide to do something, we tend to continue repeating the same choice when faced with similar situations later on. In our minds, the reasoning goes something like this: “Well, that’s how I did it before, so I must have decided it was a good idea then; therefore, it is probably a good idea again now”. The funny thing is, this is a self-reinforcing pattern; the longer we repeat a decision, the harder it is to get out of it. Sometimes, we call this “getting into a rut”. The problem is that we usually don’t stop to re-evaluate past decisions. Apparently, we’re very lazy when it comes to decision making. On the other hand, Tal and her son may be able make things easier on themselves by developing the right medical treatment habits.

While I think reward substitution and anchoring are powerful ideas that can help solve problems such as Tal’s, I don’t think playing tricks on ourselves has to be the whole solution. What if we we could start giving more weight to the long term consequences of our choices? What if we based more of our actions on cold hard calculations?

I raised this very question at a book signing that Dr. Ariely gave for The Upside of Irrationality. The example from his book that I used was how people allocate their charitable giving. In the book, he describes people’s willingness to donate when it came to helping a girl who had fallen down a well, when they could have donated their money to charities that could have used the money to help hundreds or thousands of starving people. This was very troubling to me on a moral level. According to utilitarianism, we have a moral obligation to direct our resources to produce the greatest good for the most people.

The problem was that people were responding to images they saw on TV. They acted on their emotions, rather than moral calculation. I didn’t want to believe that we are stuck with this kind of decision making. We must have the potential to do better. It may not be our natural state to set aside emotions in favor of a more calculated approach, but I believe we have the ability to reform. Perhaps, it cannot come from within ourselves, but I figure that’s one of the benefits of having parents raise us (for so long). We already try to teach children right from wrong. Can’t such lessons include the importance of moral calculation?

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